Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Conversation with David Shore

David Shore, creator of House, recently went on a holiday to Israel and visited a school to discuss with the students about TV making in the US. The event was hosted by Yair Rave, an Israeli film critic, editor, academic and scriptwriter. Some of the conversation was advertised in Mr. Rave’s blog and since I found it very interesting I thought it was worth translating to English and publish on my blog so others could read as well. For you Hebrew readers out there here is the original post. My few interjections will be in Italic. There is but a minor spoiler for season seven of House, for which I shall give warning.

David Shore was responsible for every word and every shot of the series House from the first episode to its last, 177 episodes later. For eight seasons he was the creator, executive producer in charge, the show-runner and on two episodes he was also the director. He created the series as homage to Sherlock Holmes stories that he loves so much - developed it and took it from its beginning to its very end. This week, two months after the series finale, he came to Israel to participate in some family celebrations: weddings and Brith [circumcision] (Shore has two twin brothers who became religious and live in Jerusalem and teach at Yeshiva Esh HaTorah). On Monday he came with his parents, wife, brother and nephew to "Maale" school, to talk with students about making television in America. I [Yair Rave] hosted the event.

So what is this credit, "Created by"?
"It’s the credit for the screenwriter who wrote the pilot. Even if I was wrote the pilot for House and then left the series, I would still get credit for creator. This credit is also our, screenwriters’, revenge against directors for their A Film By credit in movies. Director directs a film and it becomes immediately his film, so we, screenwriters, have the writers' creator credit on TV”.

There have been cases of people who wrote the pilot and moved on, but still got "creator" credit, even though someone else took over.
"True, but it became less common in recent years. You create a series that you want to see through. This is why I suggested House to the networks only after I was a show-runner of another series. If I offered them a series as a junior scriptwriter, they just might do it, but would not let me be in charge of it. American television is heaven for scriptwriters. They are in fact the big bosses of drama and comedy series. Directors work for them” (Shore says with venom, and suddenly you realise where House brings his cynicism: "I have a friend who works on another series, not ours, he told me that they call directors behind their backs, the people we give half of our money to"). 

Each episode of House was filmed in nine days. The director would arrive a little bit before, preparing, filming, editing and leaving. Shore and his team would give the director a finished script, which he wasn’t allowed to change, and after the director is done, Shore and his team would go into the editing room to correct what the he missed or ruined in their view. Though Shore, in moments humility, admits that the directors did come up with good ideas of their own here and there, they know how to manage the production professionally and on time, and a good director knows how to break up the pace and tone right, in the same breath he also says that the director on a TV series is almost the most superfluous about it. The show - runner makes almost all the decisions before and after the director. "Europe is a bit different," he says, "There the producer is the main boss."

Israeli TV series’ are a bit like very long features. Screenwriters finish writing and pass the scripts to the directors and pretty much are out the picture at this stage. The series’ are filmed across chapters. I mean you take a scene from Chapter 2 and then a scene in Chapter 13, that both happen in the same location, and not like yours, every episode filmed as a separate work.
"Perhaps your system has certain logic to it. If the series is pre-written, maybe it's the right way to shoot it. The American system, in which writers are running the show, didn’t happen because producers and networks love scriptwriters so much, but because over time they discovered it’s not possible otherwise. This train is so long, 22 episodes per year, and the longest part of this process is the writing, so if the writers did not run the business it would get stuck. That and the fact that the Writers Guild in Hollywood very strong. "

If you were to return to the US after your holiday and start working on season nine, tell me how would you start?
"I work a little differently from most other series’. Most series’ have an active writers’-room that works all year round and they develop ideas together. I gather the writers'-room a few times each year and then work with each writer personally. One reason for this is that we had twelve screenwriters. This is twice as many as most series’. I convinced Fox that I need twelve writers because our scripts need a lot of research, which is true by the way. We would meet at the beginning of the work, after the holiday, and first of all discuss what the main plot lines of the upcoming season would be. Although, each episode stood on its own, the series had seasonal plot lines. For example, [ when House and Cuddy become a couple, we debated how long would it hold, one chapter, half a season, full season? Once we decided on a complete season's story line, we were doing the rounds of the writers and everyone would make a pitch for two - three ideas at times. Each episode should contain a single medical mystery, and a story involving House. Sometimes I would see that one medical story fits a different story of House then I would suggest uniting the plots. We would finish the sessions having initial ideas for half a season, and every idea had a screenwriter assigned to it. Then each writer goes and writes a one page outline for their episode and sends to me. I would send them notes and they developed a three pages outline, then a fourteen pages outline, then the script. From idea to script is a process that takes several weeks. 
With twelve screenwriters, how you ensure that the language of the characters and their character will not change from episode to episode?
"We have talented writers. And besides, I am rewriting all the scripts myself."

Shore is not necessarily the best example for the average Film & Television student. He studied law and began working as a lawyer. He never learned writing for films, but writing for television interested him. So he left Canada where he was born, raised and educated, and moved to Los Angeles. There he wandered for two years, wrote sample script for agents and never saw a penny, until he found a job on Canadian series’ of all things, including the television series created by Paul Haggis Due South. From there he joined the screenwriting team of The Practice and Law & Order and in 2003 started work on developing his idea for House, under Paul Attanasio’s production company (Homicide: Life on the Street). That's the lesson he teaches students: Slowly. It took him ten years to work his way from a junior writer to have his own show. Ten years in which he went through all the jobs of the writing and production team of a US TV series and in which he learned from some of the top TV makers in America.

Now Shore has his own production company, which, just as it finished House, moved from NBC-Universal to a three years developing contract with Sony, which guarantees Shore an eight-figure sum. So he sits and develop. What? He doesn’t say, but promises that there is nothing specific he is working on now.

When you wrote House, what would you start the script with: the disease or the drama?
"We have three doctors who advised us, if you ask them this question they'll give you the opposite answer from me: that everything started with the ideas of diseases and symptoms they brought us, but usually we started with the drama. There was something we wanted to say, or a dramatic situation we wanted to achieve. Sometimes we started with a symptom: someone who wants to tell only the truth in an episode where House talks about the benefits of lying, then we went to our doctors and asked them to find us diseases that can match these symptoms. "

The opening titles of House lasted forever. Many people are credited as Executive Producer. What does it mean? All of these people have an input in series?
"You could say that the credit, Executive Producer (producer in charge) is more a matter of honor than of an actual role. Bryan Singer, for example, directed the pilot, and he got himself a contract that guaranteed him an Executive Producer credit for the whole of the series, same thing with Paul Attanasio, who was the man who closed the deals with the networks for us at the outset. The rest are people from the series that in their negotiations to continue with future seasons asked for this like Hugh Laurie and several veteran screenwriters. Scriptwriters can request a credit that specifies their seniority in the series. It starts from Staff Writer in the roller and can move to Executive Producer for the opening titles. "

What about changes in the script during filming? Would you allow?
"We have no such thing. First of all, improvising is not allowed. Actor should say what is written in the script. If an actor has a suggestion to improve, or if they have a problem with something, it's their job to come to us before the shoot so we can find a solution and put it into the script. But we do not work on the script during filming. Sometimes, in the middle of shooting, an actor tells me he has a problem with a line and I tell myself 'This is really annoying! We work weeks on these scripts, and work really hard. The can actually be some problems or it's not perfect , but we worked on it, then at least have the respect to be prepared, and if you have a problem with something in the script, you have enough time to discuss it in advance. "

This is a great answer. But what do you tell the actor?
"That we will do it twice. Once as it is written in the script and the second time as he thinks it’s ought to be, and decide to edit. In recent years, Hugh Laurie became sensitive to that and he actually stopped people trying to change a scene or dialogue in the middle of filming and told them that a lot of work was put into these scripts and that next time they should come more prepared for their role.

One of the things I loved House is the fact that quite a few of the episodes have a moral debate around an issue, and the episode presents various aspects of the matter and breaks down the issue into its constituent parts. Now when that I meet your brother, a yeshiva student, I wonder if he would send you discussions from the Talmud to turn them into dramatic ideas?
"No, it never happened. And a lot of people told me that there were scenes that reminded them of Talmudic discussions. It just goes to show that the Talmud has no exclusivity on moral debates.”
"One exercise I liked doing with my writers - I used to do this a lot, but towards the end I was too lazy - is to ask them to write a paragraph about a subject that matters to them. Then write a paragraph presenting the opposite position to theirs. The idea is that when House says something, whoever stands in front of him, usually someone in a guest appearance, would present a strong opposing argument that would be convincing. If everyone in front of House were idiots it wouldn’t be interesting. The thing is, that although we don’t like to think so, most people who think opposite from us have good intentions as we do - Well, maybe not everyone, but some smart people with good intentions, and the drama becomes more interesting when the debate is between two strong people. Otherwise it's just my preaching on my philosophy and not TV series. "

The conversation went on for over an hour and Shore talked about many more things. Some of the questions that appear in this post were asked by students and not necessarily by me [Rave]. There were quite a few specific questions related to the series, House himself and the finale, but I preferred not to present them here and focus on describing the work process of writing the series instead. The meeting was recorded on videotape, but we had sound problems. If they can be solved, I hope I can post later in the full meeting between the bull and the students.

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